Social Media Judge, Jury & Executioner: Disney’s About Face

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In our Sunday series we focus on the powerful, but often reckless impact the mob mentality of Social Media can have on reputations, brands and even criminal justice issues.

If you’ve followed us in our quest to explore how the tendency for the mob to gang up and speak, loudly, can alter the outcome of a wide range of situations, you’ll know that too often there are innocent victims caught up in the angry campaigns the social world unleashes.

We regularly suggest caution, and advise that we all take a step back, and, in criminal cases,  let those with the responsibility of investigating the real life crimes have the time to do their jobs before we convict anyone online.

With brands, although we are critical of poor customer service and the misuse of social media, we often think that missteps are overblown.  We detest the feeding frenzy that occurs when social media addicts pounce on mistakes by a business and blow it up, often creating a tempest in a teapot that doesn’t register in the online world.

Our last post explored 10 businesses subjected to the furor of the social gang angered, and outlined the impact it had, or didn’t have, on their sales and business practices.

Often, the sales needle doesn’t move an inch when a social faux pas occurs, but as we showed, it is not so rare for business practices to be impacted.

This is NOT Business as Usual

Anyone who has ever intentionally or naively encountered the ire of the Disney machine when its trademarks are infringed upon knows that it’s no laughing matter.  The company has become famous for how virulently it protects its images and trademarks.

There are other companies, such as Harley Davidson, also known for strong defense of their legendary TMs, but no company is equal to Disney in the fear it imparts anyone even considering the idea of bootlegging its brand imagery.

So when news broke on May 8th that Disney had withdrawn its application to Trademark “Day of the Dead,” or Día de Muertos,  the marketing world perked up its ears.

The Backstory

Disney Enterprises is creating a movie with the company Steve Jobs brought to life – Pixar Animation Studios Inc. It is an animation created around the holiday that is celebrated by millions of Mexicans and Mexican Americans.

If you are unaware of the meaning of El Día de los Muertos, it is an often misunderstood holiday.

At first glance it has echoes of the American Halloween, as it begins at midnight on October 31st and has imagery that is similar to the ghostly Halloween. However, there is a much deeper individual meaning behind Day of the Dead; from midnight on October 31st until November 2nd, Latinos celebrate the memories of those they have lost.

Dia de los muertos

In recent years the holiday has become increasingly popular; the cultural significance of this holiday may have caught Disney off guard.

A Mash of Indignation

We have seen Social Media used as a weapon for political or social causes; last week we outlined the deep reaching change of business practices when Nestle was faced with an organized campaign by Greenpeace.

What is interesting about the Disney change of heart is that the outrage was not extremely well organized, but instead inherently genuine; a culture felt that it was being hijacked, and rebellion was instantaneous and widespread.  Twitter was lit up with individual tweets of outrage.

A quick Google search brought up the following online petitions:

  1. Presente.org with a goal of 15K, they got to 14, 600+ before they gave up in victory.
  2. Change.org – 20,000 petitioners signed up, and the organizer felt that it was powerful enough to teach Disney a lesson.

The outrage doesn’t seem overwhelming when you consider many petitions accumulate millions of signatures and still fail.

What made this different?

Twitter Rage

Muerto MouseLATISM, a Latino social media nonprofit and Lalo Alcaraz , a cartoonist are credited with much of the vocal uprising against Disney.

Interestingly, @LATISM has 23,000 followers, and @laloalcaraz , just over 8,000 as of this writing.

Meaning two Twitter profiles with a combined following of just over 30,000 managed to raise enough Twitter hell to put Disney Enterprises, Inc. on their toes.

(Side note: think hard when you see social scoring platforms measuring Influence by the number of followers an individual has. If you want to think harder about it, check out Influence Marketing.)

Of course the story was irresistible to all of the traditional media outlets, especially Alcaraz’s cartoon, and soon, it was everywhere.

A Marketing Legend Bends to Social Media Power: The Withdrawal

On May 1st Disney Enterprises, Inc. submitted their request to trademark Day of the Dead; on May 7th they withdrew the application.

Suffice it to say that Disney and their army of legal eagles doesn’t usually make these sort of an about face.

Something happened at lightning speed that caused them to realize, quickly, that they may win the battle but would never win the war.

Disney’s Reasons

Disney Enterprises, Inc. applied for the Trademark to Day of the Dead on May 1st; on Tuesday  May 7th they withdrew the application. Disney’s explanation?

They were changing the name of the film. 

Was Disney Thinking with its Pocketbook?

As much as we’d all like to believe in art, and integrity, and idealism… the reality is that every for-profit company in existence has PROFIT as its foremost goal.

Disney Enterprises has been phenomenally, legendarily successful at creating enduring characters and series that have brought the audience joy, and the corporation incredible profits.

If you have a pulse and pay even a slight degree of attention to American politics, you’ll know that our demographics are changing.

Many astute political pundits credit Obama’s clear victory to the fact that he understood that the voting blocks that had carried politicians to victory for generations was no longer enough to carry anyone to the finish line. We look different. We sound different.

And Latinos are a huge part of our changing face; now the #1 minority in America.

Latino demographics US

Anyone who looks deeper understands that there is no Latino monolith; Cuban, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Dominican…..   the ‘Latin’ population of the US is varied and certainly does not think in lock step. Disney offended one segment of the Latino population of the US; Mexican Americans.

Not only did Disney not think through the meaning of what it was trying to accomplish with the trademark application, it did not understand the cultural significance of the holiday to Mexicans and Mexican Americans.

When members of the community who cherish the holiday began accusing Disney of attempting to co-opt its culture, one can only imagine that things can got a little hairy in the C Suite.

This Isn’t So New to Disney

If you are familiar with Disney’s history, you’ll know that angering groups of people is nothing new to the company.

From the famous Air Pirates story, to Disney’s recent attempts to Trademark SealTeam6, the story of Disney backing down in the face of outrage is not so new.

The story that bears the greatest resemblance to this one was the battle Shelby Foote and  other historians launched against Disney in the mid 90’s when the company attempted to build a Civil War Theme Park in Virginia.

David McCullough’s statement summed it all up perfectly:

We have so little left that is authentic, that is real, and to replace it with plastic history, mechanized history, is a sacrilege.

How Social Media Changed the Pace

The victory against Disney’s America referenced above took the weight of prominent historians, and it took time.  The campaign against Disney’s America took almost a year of campaigning, television and radio interviews, and a steady drumbeat to get the company to pull the plug in 1994.

This ‘victory’ took less than a week.

Social media obviously allows for rapid fire communication, and when savvy opponents got wind of what Disney was planning, they took the now well worn path of Twitter, Facebook and online campaigns and created an online buzz that Disney couldn’t ignore.

Disney must have understood two things:

  1. The Trademark pursuit was so culturally offensive to a huge segment of the market that it wasn’t worth fighting the battle.
  2. Social Media’s tidal wave was only beginning to swell; it was best to pull the plug quickly.

What Comes Next?

The swiftness of the Day of the Dead victory was more interesting when juxtaposed against the anger Disney has generated by its plan to ‘makeover’ Merida, the star of Brave.

The makeover has offended women because they see it as the sexualizing of a character built on bravery and independence.  Many mothers reject the ‘search for Prince Charming’ that characterizes so many Disney Princesses.

Merida Disney makeover

As of this writing over 100,000 people had signed this petition.

Yesterday, May 11th, Disney crowned Merida the 11th Princess in the Disney Brand; the new Merida is homogenized to conform with the appearance of other princesses.

Disney’s reaction thus far has been email avoidance and a bland non statement:

Merida exemplifies what it means to be a Disney Princess through being brave, passionate, and confident and she remains the same strong and determined Merida from the movie whose inner qualities have inspired moms and daughters around the world.

Damningly, the creator of Brave, Brenda Chapman, has blasted Disney for the makeover:

It’s a blatantly sexist marketing move based on money.

If the social media campaigns grow louder on the Merida issue, will Disney continue to ignore the parents and daughters who find the change despicable?

The crucial question is: what makes a company backtrack?

In the end, it is fear of offending customers, and in the Day of the Dead situation Disney obviously felt that the offense would be too great to stomach.

We’ll be watching with particular interest from this space to see what effect, if any at all, the social media campaigns waged against the Disney Merida revamp cause the company to change their mind again.

VP of Content & Strategy at ArCompany. She has an extensive background in Sales, and focuses on generational marketing and content. With Hessie Jones she founded ArCompany’s Millnnnial, GenX and Boomer Think Tanks and writes and speaks on those topics from an insights/strategy perspective.

4 thoughts on “Social Media Judge, Jury & Executioner: Disney’s About Face

  1. ExtremelyAvg says:

    Good for Disney. They had an idea, which turned out to be a bad one, and were smart enough to do an about face. Hopefully, they will do the same with Meridia. I like the one with the bow, best!

    • AmyMccTobin says:

      ExtremelyAvg Yes, you can’t fault a company for changing their mind; it will be interesting to watch the Merida pressure mount – there have already been more people signing a petition.  One wonders what made the decision such  a rapid one on Day of the Dead and not on Merida when the Brave’s own creator, Brenda Chapman, came out so strongly against them.

  2. […] Last week we covered Disney Enterprises’ withdrawal of their application to trademark Day of the Dead. […]

  3. Onyx says:

    As a feminist…this honestly doesn’t bother me. Princesses are Disney’s thing. In Frozen freaking Elsa had ice powers that made her dress look absolutely amazing. Why is it so bad to look pretty AND be bad ass? Repunzel did it in Tangled. and Elsa did it in Frozen, and she didn’t need a man, all she needed was sisterly love. Let’s not make this a feminist issue when there’s a bunch of beaten and bruised women who don’t have the rights we have here. Let’s worry about the women in the middle east instead of Merida from a movie that isn’t really real.

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